WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

Insights, analysis, techniques, opinions, and experiences from the team behind the WELS Hymnal Project.

Our favorite things are normally not hard for us to identify. As a result, asking “what’s a favorite hymn?” might sound a little strange. But when you think about it, this isn't a simple question. “Do I pick my favorite based on the words that proclaim my Savior and touch my heart…or on the melody I want to keep humming through the day…or should I pick one from my favorite season of the church year?” When it comes to hymns, there’s a lot to love.

You might value a hymn because you know it by heart. You might love a hymn because of the meaning it carried at a special occasion, like a funeral for a loved one or your child’s Confirmation Day. Maybe you can think of a precious hymn that takes you back to the candlelight of Christmas Eve or the trumpeted triumph of Easter morning. Maybe you feel drawn to a hymn’s unparalleled poetry. Maybe you cherish the way both melody and message are perfectly tuned and married to each other. (You get the idea…this list could go on forever!)

But even now, we've barely scratched the surface. At the end of the day, consider the many ways the hymns we sing have served your spiritual needs over the years - helping you, guiding you, equipping you and training you through the varied stages and experiences of life. The Word communicated in a hymn brings the comforting embrace of our Father’s forgiveness. Hymns provide the reassuring shoulder to soothe our inner pain and panic. Like personal reminders, hymns review credal truths and rehearse the words and works of our Savior. Like lyrical lips, hymns help our mouths and hearts express our praise and thanksgiving to God.

Picking your favorite hymns may not be so easy after all, but that’s the very thrill of it. In the middle of this hymnal project, we pause to remember the many hymns that have served us so well. That’s what this survey is all about. This is not a vote, where you need to save your favorite hymns from getting cut. We simply want to know the hymns that are close to your heart. Use this survey as an opportunity to celebrate our rich heritage of hymns by sharing with us your personal treasures!

For more information and instructions for completing the survey, head over to the research section of our website.

Having not taken piano lessons till a little bit later in my life, I remember the first hymn I tried to learn to play on my own. We had a big upright piano in the basement, and for whatever the reasons were in those late grade school days of my life, the hymn I was bound and determined to teach myself to play was #172 in The Lutheran Hymnal, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” I still remember dealing with the G#s in the E major chord halfway through the first line. It was sort of neat to land on that chord at the end of the first long measure. But I also remember that I didn’t have an easy time moving to the next chord, where the G# was all of a sudden in the left hand and I came to find out that my right hand was somehow supposed to cover an octave.

There’s still a keyboard in my basement, a small digital instrument (the real piano is upstairs) that is connected to one of two computers (Windows and Mac). There are also four guitars, three amps, three mic stands, a music stand, several dozen hymnals, and two space heaters. But now, when I look at the Gerhardt hymn, there are usually three or four or more hymnals open to that hymn, and I start wondering about a lot of things that go far beyond how to play it.

  • In the A chord at the end of the first line there’s a Picardy third (making it an A major chord instead of A minor). But not every Lutheran hymnal has that Picardy third.

  • I wonder how well Gerhardt’s German represents the original Latin text penned by Bernard of Clairvaux.

  • It’s easy to note across any number of hymnals that some retained the thees and thous, while others did not.

  • Then there’s the fact that Bernard’s text and Gerhardt’s hymn and The Lutheran Hymnal all had ten stanzas. A check of several Lutheran hymnals from the past four decades reveals abridgements resulting in the hymn being printed with seven stanzas, four stanzas, or even only three.

  • One can also note that most Christian hymnals print this hymn with a different rhythm, an equal rhythm of successive quarter notes, along with a harmonization by a Lutheran composer by the name of J.S. Bach. Which rhythm will be in our next hymnal? Or, as some hymnals do, should we include both?

And all of this, of course, is just one case in point. A similar conversation can be had about dozens if not hundreds of hymns.

But what happens when the rubber meets the road and I’m sitting in the pew and Christian Worship #105 appears on the hymn board? What happens if the service folder indicates that we are to sing stanzas 1,3,4, and 7? What happens if the organist plays a harmony for one stanza which is not the harmony that’s printed in the book, and it doesn’t work for me to sing the bass line where I know that G# is supposed to be coming soon? What if the pastor printed the “equal rhythm” version of the hymn in the service folder and that’s how the organist is playing it and now we’re all supposed to sing it in a way we’ve never really sung it before?

I’m not trying to create issues where issues don’t exist, nor do I want people to reply to this article with comments such as, “Yeah, I hate when things like that happen.” What I’m trying to do is to be honest about a temptation with which I have a tough time, one which I’m pretty sure the devil knows is a weakness of mine: being distracted by the details, getting all caught up with and carried away by peripheral matters, with the result that my mind is not on the message.

I am comforted to know that the one whose sacred head was wounded was in fact wounded to pay for all my Third Commandment sins of despising his Word in whichever ways I may ever have despised it. I also recognize more and more all the time that I need his Spirit to work inside me so that when I am sitting in a pew with a hymnal in my hand, I am concentrating on the message rather than on the things that I like or don’t like about the particular way in which this hymn (or psalm or rite) appears on the page.

When the Spirit works to make that happen, there are good results. According to the promise of Jesus, there are bound to be good results. “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:28 KJV). Look what we get to hear about in just one stanza of this hymn (CW 105:4), and think about how blessed we are to hear it!

Lord, in your passion, the burden that you bore was mine. It was my transgression that filled you with shame as you died on Calvary. That transgression of mine would have crushed me and left me in eternal solitary confinement, forever shackled to a wall in a cell in hell. But you bore it for me, and it is no longer mine to bear. I can say with confidence that I will never find out what hell is like. Lord Jesus, you will never spurn me. You have taken ownership of me. I belong to you now, and that’s never going to change, not today, not tomorrow, not the day that I die, not ever.

We continue to work so that the next hymnal you hold in your hands will allow you to be soaked by the rain shower of God’s grace in Christ. In whatever ways things appear on the page, all of us will always need the Spirit’s work inside us so that we can mute the distractions and instead concentrate on and trust in the message about our Savior. This article goes out with the prayer that your Holy Week and Easter worship will be overflowing with the blessings Jesus promises to all who hear and cling to his message of deliverance, forgiveness, peace, and unstoppable Easter joy.

The WELS Hymnal Project’s Executive Committee recently met at the synod’s Center for Mission and Ministry in Waukesha on February 11 and 12. Each of the project’s seven subcommittees (Hymnody, Rites, Scripture, Psalmody, Literature, Technology, Communications) presented what their committee has been developing over the last few months for the executive committee’s review and approval. At this point that material still consists mainly of plans, philosophy statements, and guiding principles more so than specific hymns, psalms, or orders of service.

During the next few months, some of the key issues that the subcommittees have been wrestling with and that were discussed at this recent meeting will be topics for articles here on our website. We look forward to giving you the opportunity to review what’s been discussed so far and react to it.

What Else Is Next…

In addition to updates here on our website, here’s what else you can look forward to from the WELS Hymnal project during the coming months.

  • A two-part article will appear in Forward in Christ summarizing what we have learned so far as a result of our various research efforts, including the four surveys we conducted in 2014. Among these four surveys, nearly 7,200 responses were received. We want to thank all those who took the time to fill out one or more of these surveys. The content of that summary article will also be shared in segments on our website and will be included in the Book of Reports and Memorials presented at this summer’s synod convention.

  • This spring, the Communications Committee will facilitate an opportunity for anyone interested to let us know what their most dearly-loved hymns are. This opportunity will be open to anyone, and a special effort will be made to reach the students in our synod’s schools and Sunday Schools. The survey will ask about hymns in Christian Worship and Christian Worship Supplement. It will also give people an opportunity to select hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal that they would like to see included as well as a place to suggest songs from outside of these resources for the committee’s consideration.

  • Starting in 2016, you will start to hear about an effort to update people on where we are headed and give them the opportunity to sample and react to specific materials that are being considered for inclusion. Every congregation and school in the synod will have the opportunity to participate.

Thank you for your continued interest in this project and prayers for God’s blessing on it.

Pastor Jonathan Bauer
Communications Committee

"The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes." - Goethe

If you direct children's groups in church, you've probably lamented, as I have, that it can be really difficult to find quality children's choir music for worship. You've likely also felt the pinch of a tight music budget at one time or another. And if you direct multiple children's groups, you know how much more difficult it can be to find something to fill all those singing dates. Sometimes, as I struggle to find music that I can buy into, that resonates with my students, and that edifies the congregation, I too often overlook a rich resource already in my possession that is full of rock-solid texts coupled with engaging melodies that the kids love or will soon learn to love.

The hymnal.

In our survey of educators this past fall, we asked what role children's choirs usually play in the worship service. About two-thirds responded that children's groups sing mostly anthems. Less than a third responded that the children participate in singing hymns, psalms, and parts of the liturgy. While there is a place for a well-crafted anthem that fits the theme of the day, there's nothing quite like having children's groups enhance the liturgy or singing hymns and psalms antiphonally with the congregation. Consider four reasons for teachers to balance worship music selection for their classes by including the hymnal as a key resource.

1. The children will gain a better appreciation for what happens in the service.
When kids learn hymns and liturgy at their Lutheran school or Sunday School, the likelihood that they participate in singing them in worship increases. And while singing a canticle like the Song of Mary in school is beneficial, having the kids memorize it and get it "performance ready" helps them to internalize it, think more about it, and appreciate it more. When you teach them a CW Verse of the Day setting and they ask you what a Verse of the Day is, you have a built-in opportunity to explain a wonderful element of the liturgy that they might not otherwise have thought about. The key is to be enthusiastic about these things. If you show genuine enthusiasm, the kids will pick up on it.

2. The children's participation can serve a more tightly integrated role in the service.
A quality anthem is a beautiful addition to a service. But participating in the liturgy and antiphonal singing of hymns and psalms is a special role. My students like to hear that they are leading the congregation when they are singing the first half of Psalm verses or introducing a new hymn. When they sing the Kyrie or the Gloria, they are singing something that is a foundational part of the service. When they sing antiphonally with the congregation, they connect and partner with the congregation.

3. It adds variety.
There are so many ways to get kids involved so that their participation breathes new life into the parts of a church service. When using Divine Service I from CWS, consider having the children sing the "verses" of the Gloria while the congregation sings the repeated “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth." Try having the children sing "O Christ Lamb of God" from Service of Word and Sacrament as Holy Communion begins. If you have access to handbells or handchimes, think about having your students sing hymn stanzas antiphonally with the congregation. Then use simple ostinato patterns or random rings from books like Creative Use of Handbells in Worship by Hal Hopson to accompany. Something as simple as having the children sing a single stanza from a hymn concertato, where the children can simply sing from the hymnal at no extra cost, can add a new vitality to hymn singing that both children and adults enjoy. Don't forget about the descants in the hymnal. I still can picture the excited faces of my 6th graders (girls and boys) who, this past Christmas, were designated to sing the Willcocks descant for “O Come All Ye Faithful” for our school's Christmas service. They were thrilled to sing something the adult choir normally sings.

4. It can make music selection easier.
Singing from the hymnal doesn't cost anything extra. If hymns and liturgy are selected far enough in advance, you probably need only to touch base with the pastor about having the children participate in something that's already planned for the service and then coordinate with the organist. If you're looking to introduce part singing, some of the CW Verse of the Day settings are an easy place to start. Knowing the hymn and psalm selections for a given Sunday can act as springboard for selecting hymn concertatos or alternate psalm settings like those found in Tel's Psalms for All Seasons or Hopson's People's Psalter.

I hope that this rich resource that is already in your hands can be a regular part of your planning as you get your school groups ready for worship. We’d love to hear what resources in the new hymnal would be valuable in helping your children's groups participate in the regular elements of a service.